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Stephanie Sandberg Headshot

Whitewash

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We have a problem in magazine publishing: the white glare is making it increasingly hard for us to make out distinctions in the cultural landscape that are shaping the 21st century, and therefore our business.

The industry understands the challenge, and is scared enough by the implications – if we don’t employ people who represent the country how will we know how to talk to them? – that it’s put diversity at the top of its problem to-do list, just behind postal issues. It’s hard to get riled about postal issues if you’re not running the company, but diversity hits a big, anxious nerve, from chief bean counters to creative assistants, for reasons ranging from growing market share to appropriate office decorum. Problem is, while the industry is deeply serious about solving the problem, at the individual company level leaders are flummoxed, in part because the problem isn’t attracting candidates, it’s keeping them. Studies show that a representative sampling of people of color enter the publishing marketplace each year; then, not feeling at home, they leave. Repeat.

I had lunch today with a friend at the Conde Nast cafeteria, its mix of high style and high school enough in itself to give anyone social pause. It’s a white crowd. My (white Conde Nast employee) friend and I (white visitor) sat in a corner booth. Folks were in clusters around the room, divided by the infamous undulating glass. The only person who was alone that I saw sat at a nearby table, speaking on her cell phone – utilizing the dangling mouthpiece that annoying hipsters use, to my experience, but I suppose the better to eat lunch while talking. She was black. She finished and left. My friend and I were still there a half-hour later when the only other black person I saw at Conde Nast today sat at another nearby table. She too ate alone, also talking on a cell phone. At one point one of the cooks asked, through gesture, if he could share her table – I heard her say, graciously, “Sure, why not?” He spoke no English and wolfed his food, hunched over. She finished quickly and left.

There are no villains here that I’m aware of, and this was a snapshot. But it moved me, the way a powerful photograph captures a moment that is by definition unreal – it’s just a moment, frozen, out of context – but exposes more reality than one often can take in when life is in motion. The black women ate alone, connected to people outside the room.

I hope for the sake of my industry that we’ll be able to better create communities in which anyone from a stylish black woman to someone from Blue Man Group feels at home, provided they have talent and something to give. For an industry whose lifeblood is connecting to Americans’ interests and passions at the individual level – “a million Me’s,” as a recent trade campaign has it -- we’ll quickly be anemic if we don’t.